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By John Davenport, guest columnist

A recent front-page story in the Journal caught my eye. It addressed the evolution of career and technical education in the local high schools, particularly in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math.

Edit Edit date and timeI am encouraged by this renewed focus on STEM education. Introducing students to jobs and careers in technical fields while they are still in school can go a long way towards building a talent pipeline that will help meet hard-to-fill local labor market demands. As the owner of an engineering consulting firm that has been around for 15 years, I know firsthand how difficult it is to find strong candidates with skill and experience.

My ability to attract and retain talented employees is critical to my firms continued success. Thats why Im a firm believer in internship programs. I see them as a short-term investment that can provide long-term value not only to my firm but to the community. Internships can open doors for students and lead to full-time positions. I know, because thats how it happened for me. I was the first person in my family to graduate from college I was also a first-generation high-school grad. With my parents support, I graduated from East Forsyth High School, received my bachelors degree from N.C. State, and went on to earn my masters from N.C. A&T. My parents didnt know the levers to push to help me achieve my dream of becoming a civil engineer, so I had to figure it out on my own. My quest led me to a wise classmate who was a couple of years ahead of me at State. This classmate knew of my interest in becoming a civil engineer. He also was aware that during the summers while I was in college, I worked a lot of temporary jobs, such as loading trucks for FedEx Ground and telemarketing.

The summer before my graduation year, he recommended I apply for a summer internship in Winston-Salem with the N.C. Department of Transportation to gain relevant work experience. I got the internship and a job offer from the DOT after I graduated. That internship was a pivotal experience for me as I was beginning my career, and I pledged to pay it forward. I started my firms internship program in 2007, once my company had developed the traction needed to support it. Today, our internship program has grown to where we routinely hire several high-school and college interns a year, budget permitting.

One or two students come from Atkins High Schools pre-engineering program based on faculty recommendations. I also look for one additional intern, a non-traditional student who is not necessarily interested in engineering and who has never had an opportunity to work in a professional environment. We introduce this intern to basic administrative, operational and support functions within the organization to help them gain valuable work experience. We also hire college interns who are majoring in civil engineering or environmental studies. We utilize them at higher levels with an eye to possibly hiring them on when they graduate. Sometimes our interns discover while working with us that they dont want to go into civil engineering. Not all of our interns will turn into full-time employees and thats OK. We believe our program helps expand our interns networks, gives them experience to put on their resumes, and helps inform their career direction.

We don’t lose anything. In fact, we see internships as a win-win. The interns learn from us, we learn from them. We benefit from their fresh, innovative ideas and perspectives, and we find out what motivates them, which in turn helps our recruiting efforts.

Developing an internship program takes time and effort. You must be intentional about what you want your interns to do and develop a plan for how you will introduce them to your company’s culture, industry, business, office environment and workflow. This can be a fruitful opportunity for both you and the interns. You don’t want to lose the opportunity to make the best impression and provide the best learning experience possible.

Don’t dismiss the value of good word-of-mouth. I encourage all employers to consider developing an internship program at whatever scale seems appropriate. In the short term, internships are a cost-effective way for you to find future employees, test-drive talent and increase productivity. In the long run, they can not only ensure your organizations success but can provide a way for you to give back to the community by helping students learn and building a strong local workforce.